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A Novelist, Poet — and Chinese
Soap Star

Rachel DeWoskin (GRS’00) juggles projects with ease

| From BU Today | By Jessica Ullian

Photo by Barber Photography

At Boston University, Rachel DeWoskin was known for writing poems with “astonishing dash and verve,” as Robert Pinsky, her former professor in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Creative Writing Program, describes them. Beyond Commonwealth Avenue, however, she’s garnered international attention as a memoirist, a novelist, and a Chinese soap-opera star — a combination of identities that sounds daunting, but that DeWoskin (GRS’00) finds inspiring.

“I think every one of us is a whole crowd of people, that most of us contain our own opposites,” she says. “I’m grateful to be able to live some simultaneous lives, because I cherish the sensation of moving — from one place to another, one role to another, one genre, book, or language to another.”

DeWoskin — who recently visited BU to read at this semester’s Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture — can count both Boston and Beijing among the places that have provided her much-cherished artistic mobility. Before coming to BU, she starred as Jiexi, a foreign femme fatale, on the 1995 Chinese TV show Foreign Babes in Beijing; after returning to the United States to study poetry at the University, she published a memoir of the same title.

Her more recent work, which includes her first full-length collection of poems, The Caretaker’s Daughter, and a novel, Repeat After Me, revisits themes old and new: the novel concerns a romance between a young ESL teacher and a troubled Chinese radical, while the poetry collection focuses on girls in the Ozark Mountains region of Missouri. The range of themes and genres is both a practical and an artistic choice for DeWoskin, who seems to move between projects with ease.

“The writers I love best are able to import the most useful components of each genre into their own: the clarity and momentum of fiction into poetry, poetry’s beauty and economy of language into prose, and the truth-hunting perspective of nonfiction into all writing,” she says. “So I think of my working life as a kind of experiment in form: my poems try to infuse my prose with a thoughtful sense of meter and sound, attentiveness to sentences. My prose tries to rein in my poetry, keep it unindulgent, propulsive, and clear. I also work this way so that when one project or genre isn’t moving the way I want it to — or I need to look away for a while in order to revise with fresh perspective — I can turn to another genre, or world.”

DeWoskin joined featured reader Charles Simic, the 2007 U.S. poet laureate and author of more than 20 books of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems, and Pinsky, a three-time U.S. poet laureate, for the February 19 lecture.

Simic’s other works of poetry include Selected Poems: 1963-2003, winner of the 2005 International Griffin Poetry Prize; Jackstraws, which was named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times in 1999; and Walking the Black Cat, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for 1996. He was appointed the 15th U.S. poet laureate consultant in poetry in 2007, was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2000, and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1995 and received the 2007 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets. Simic is an emeritus professor at the University of New Hampshire.

Pinsky’s works of poetry include Gulf Music; Jersey Rain; The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966–1996, winner of the 1997 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and a Pulitzer Prize nominee; The Want Bone; History of My Heart; An Explanation of America; and Sadness and Happiness. He has also published four books of criticism, two books of translation, a prose book, The Life of David, and a computerized novel, Mindwheel.

Established in 2005, the Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture Series brings distinguished writers to campus to read their works alongside members of the Creative Writing Program faculty and a program graduate. The series is funded by Nancy Livingston (COM’69) and her husband, Fred Levin, through the Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.

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